Saturday, May 26, 2012

On Brashness

 In 1994, the Green Bay Packers acquired a forgettable tight end named Reggie Johnson.  He was coming off what would prove to be his career best season with the Denver Broncos, in which he caught 20 passes.  He caught seven passes for the Packers in '94, before moving on to two other teams, finally finishing his career back in Green Bay in 1997, a season in which he was used mostly on special teams and did not catch a pass. For his career, he caught 66 passes in seven seasons, with six touchdowns.

The reasons I remember Reggie Johnson is because after his signing with the Packers, a Wisconsin sports talk show host interviewed a Denver sports talk show host, in order to get a "scouting report" for Packer fans.  Perhaps only in Wisconsin do the fans care enough about a third-string tight end to demand a media-to-media "scouting report."  After all these years, I have forgotten most of what the Denver guy said about Reggie Johnson, except for one thing.  He described him as a "typically brash Florida State athlete."  Since the Packers had drafted the infamous Terrell Buckley out of Florida State in the first round two years prior, I had a good idea of what that meant.  Even though I have no memory of Reggie Johnson ever exhibiting "brashness" in his brief time in the Green & Gold, I implanted him in my memory as indicative of a certain type of athlete.  I don't know that I've ever actually used the word "brash" out loud to describe a person, but any word short for "impertinent, impudent, tactless, hasty, rash, impetuous, energetic, and spirited" works for me as a shorthand to describe this type of being.

And in that era, by no means was brashness limited to Florida State football players.  The 1980s and early to mid 1990s was the era of the brash athlete, perhaps an era of brashness in general.  The dominant music genres of hair metal and hip-hop engendered brashness.  Fashion was brash.  Roseanne became the top-rated comedy on television.  College programs like the aforementioned Florida State and Miami became known for brashness.  And the likes Jim McMahon, Jose Canseco, Dennis Rodman, Deion Sanders, Mike Tyson, Rickey Henderson, Michael Irvin, and Barry Bonds showed that brashness was rewarded with money and attention. 

But a funny thing happened as the millennium turned.  Even as social media allowed individuals to broadcast their brashness like never before, there started to be a backlash against brashness.  An entire generation of athletes was raised with the mantra that "there is no I in team," and it seems like many of them actually believed it.  As 90s relics Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, and Chad Ochocinco faded away, nobody stepped up to take their place.  1980s brash baseball player Ozzie Guillen became a 2000s brash manager, and has ignited public relations disasters in both cities he has managed in.  Jose Canseco is still out there acting brash, but in doing so only draws attention to how anachronistic brashness now is.  Hip-hop and hair metal ceded territory to grunge and then emo. Reality television actors are undeniably brash, but are generally mocked because of it.  Newt Gingrich was defeated by Mitt Romney. Even professional wrestling has become noticeably less brash. 

While cultural trends are cyclical and backlashes are often inevitable, I still think the decline of brashness is curious.  In addition to the rise of social media, the emergence of advanced statistical metrics allows for a better understanding than ever before of an individuals' role in team success.  In other words, a truly impactful individual can substantiate his brashness like never before.  And obviously, the individual nature of player contracts (or player endorsement deals for that matter) would seem to provide incentive for favoring oneself over one's team.  Then again, LeBron James has spent the last two years trying to make amends for showing a hint of brashness (having had the audacity to announce his contractual intentions on television and not on Twitter).  We somehow now live in a culture where brashness isn't cool anymore.

But then again, in the last month two young baseball stars, 19-year-old Bryce Harper, and 22-year-old Brett Lawrie, have made the news for throwing their helmets.  (Harper's helmet rebounded and gashed him in the face, Lawrie's rebounded and hit an umpire).  Both Harper and Lawrie had already exhibited a history of brashness before those respective incidents.  (Harper blowing a kiss to a pitcher he homered off of in the minor leagues last year was straight out of the 1980s playbook of brash).  Check back in a few years.  It will be interesting to see whether Harper and Lawrie mature the brashness out of their systems, or if they represent the vanguard of the return of the Reggie Johnson type.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Coach's Feet, John Edwards, and Loretta Lynn

 Several years ago, I heard a story that a prominent college football coach had worn the wrong pair of shoes at a bowl game.  How can a football coach be said to wear wrong shoes?  Apparently, his university was contractually obligated to adorn themselves exclusively with the products of a certain apparel company, but this particular coach decked his feet out with a competing brand.  This apparently became an "internal matter" at his university, but the matter never became public knowledge.  I only found out about it through a contact in the sports media who had a contact in the university's athletic department.

But wait, one might ask.  How is it that somebody in the media knew this but the public didn't?  Isn't it the media's job to inform the public?  Although the matter might have held a modicum of public interest, no media outlet would report on a story like this, which would effectively destroy its relationship with a university, while deriving no real journalistic plaudits in return (we're not exactly talking about the Watergate scandal here).   But, really, why blame the media for withholding information that was readily available for anyone who was paying attention?  The coach's shoes were right there on TV for millions of people to see, but nobody noticed.

Since then, I've occasionally thought of this story in relation to other news stories that pop up.  In our wired and superconnected world, I wonder how anything can remain a secret.  We are days away from a verdict in the John Edwards corruption trial.  Whether he is guilty of criminal malfeasance or not, it is apparent that anyone involved in his 2008 presidential campaign who was "paying attention" had to know that something was amiss in the candidate's personal life.  The New York Post gossip column ran a "blind item," which in hindsight was obviously referring to Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter and the National Enquirer ran detailed allegations, but for the most part, Edwards was able to carry on his campaign unabated for longer than one would have expected.

Aside from this sordid tale, the news that "broke" this weekend that I found particularly fascinating was the story that Loretta Lynn is three years older than originally thought, which means that the Coal Miner's Daughter mythology that she constructed for herself (namely, that she was married at age 13) is not factually accurate.  For at least 30 years, the public story was incorrect, even though a wealth of public documentation exists which shows that she was born in 1932 and married in 1948.  So how did she get found out?  According to an Associated Press article:
An AP reporter recently found Lynn's birth certificate online that listed a different birthdate from the one listed in the news agency's database of celebrity birthdays. The reporter changed the date in the database; when the new birthday was used in a recent story, the Country Music Hall of Fame contacted the AP about the discrepancy.
Basically, for the first time, somebody paid attention. In this case, it happened to be someone in the news media.  But given the relative ease with which a layperson might now access information, and given the social media platforms through which findings might be disseminated, I look forward to a future in which we can crowdsource the task of paying attention.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Haters and Trolls

According to, one of the earliest references to the word "hater" was in a 1999 Ice T song.  This surprises me.  I would have been less surprised had the first reference been in a 1989 Ice T song.  Though in hindsight I certainly can't recall being cognizant of the term during the 1990s, my assumption would have been that I just wasn't hip enough to gangsta rap lingo to know that the term was in circulation.  But somehow, gangsta rap thrived for about ten years without the word "hater" being applied in any raps (who knew?), and then after the word appeared and quickly became integrated into pop culture, the popularity of gangsta rap receded.  Now the word exists independently of the culture that spawned it.

Of course, today, many slang terms associated with the genre of gangsta rap are now regularly sprouted by individuals who listen exclusively to shimmering autotuned dance pop songs.  Youths who have never heard a single song produced by Sean Combs may still possess a vocabulary featuring words like "crunk," "bling," and "props."  But the word "hater" has taken on a special kind of transcendence.  Search Twitter at any hour of any day for the word "hater" and you will find that sometime within the last  hour, if not the last few minutes, someone has tweeted something about "haters."

Why the proliferation of this word?  Because it serves a special function in an unusual historical period.  We are living in a time when, supposedly, a generation of self-absorbed and entitled individuals are being created.  This self-absorbed and entitled generation has been, supposedly, raised to believe they can do no wrong and that they are special just the way they are.  But we are also living in a time when online communication facilitates a discourse heavy on confrontation, negatively, and vulgarity.  What to do when your every (virtual) utterance can be seized upon and mocked, belittled, criticized, or condemned?

Fortunately, there exists a one-word dismissal for such critics.  Or perchance a three word phrase that encapsulates an entire coping philosophy: "Haters gonna hate."  We don't need to wade too deep into the ontology of this philosophy, to try to examine where haters come from, whether there are different classifications of haters, or why they must inevitably conform to a certain pattern of behavior.  We may simply dismiss them without prejudice, not allowing them to shake our foundational security.

And certainly, in the Internet age, that is not necessarily a bad approach to take in many circumstances.  Haters certainly will arise, they will do their nasty work of hating, and we would be wise not to indulge them.  But at the same time, we must be certain that we are not dismissing all critics as haters.  So how can we determine who should be heeded and who should be ignored?  Here is where I think another useful term has arisen in order to meet the particular needs of this particular time.

Not too many years ago, any use of the word "troll" conjured up images of bill goats unable to cross bridges or ugly lawn ornaments.  Now, thanks to the Internet, the word exists to describe a particular kind of person who uses inflammatory language in order to derive personal emotional pleasure, one who delights in provoking others. 

My hope is that as we continue to work out how to forge an effective discourse in a changing communicative environment, we can impart to members of the emerging generation an ability to distinguish critics from trolls-- to not necessarily be dismissive of "haters," but to be able to recognize and disregard those who truly seek to transmit toxicity.  And as regarding an individual who develops the capability and wisdom to discern the difference--we just may need to coin a term to describe them.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The World's Mightiest Psychologists

Spoilers for Avengers movie follow:

When the plan for an Avengers movie was announced a few years ago, most of the what I read from the comic book fan community was a combination of intense excitement and practical trepidation.  On one hand, such a spectacular proposition was beyond the pale of anything superhero fandom could have ever expected not too long ago.  On the other hand, could they really do such a concept justice?  In a single film, could they tell a coherent (much less entertaining) story involving such a diverse cast of characters, while at the same time flushing out these characters, giving all of them a chance to breathe and develop?

Judging from the reaction of both the critical and the fan community, the answer is yes.  Personally, I would have liked the movie no matter what popular reaction was.  I predetermined that I would enjoy this movie.  Even if the execution failed, I was such a fan of the concept that I would cheer any attempt, any effort whatsoever.  But by all measures, director Joss Whedon and company succeeded.  They delivered an engrossing, entertaining movie that honored the source material while presenting an original story, filled with thrilling action, humor, and characterization.  In any narrative about a team (often seen in sports movies, but in other derivations as well), it is almost necessary to begin the film with dysfunction, only for the team to pull together and recognize strength in diversity.  In a superhero film, this is problematic because the dysfunction might strip the characters of the suffix "-hero," leaving nothing but a film about unlikable "supers."  Whedon managed to  straddle the line, to show how superpowered people might have conflicts without losing the right to be called heroic.

But beyond all that, what made this movie masterful to me was the rich subtext regarding conflict, even warfare.  The specter of war hung over the entire film, the notion that when power is harnessed and elevated, inevitably conflict results.  Despite converted pacifist Tony Stark's objections to being called a soldier, despite the initial rhetoric that SHIELD was attempting to use the "tesseract" MacGuffin in order to pursue "clean energy," everyone knew from the moment this film was announced that the climax of this movie would involve a superpowered version of a military battle.  Actually, this element can't properly be called "subtext"--when Nick Fury recruited Captain America the dialogue was centered on the concept of fighting (and winning) wars.  When Loki and Stark engaged in a rhetorical battle just prior to the film's climax, the discussion was about whose "army" was superior.  And on one level, the film provided a commentary about arms escalation and the inevitable consequences thereof (the perilous averting of a nuclear holocaust in New York City was not something I was expecting to see--but it actually served as an interesting counterpoint to the climax of Watchmen.  If that graphic novel was the "deconstruction" of the superhero genre, could The Avengers be a "reconstruction"?)

But in the end, it wasn't superior military might, or even tactical advantages, that netted the Avengers their victory.  In a fascinating subtextual comment on modern warfare, this film spotlighted psychology as the decisive factor.  The ability to control one's own emotional state, to have proper emotional responses, and to be able to manipulate the psychology of others--these are the true powers that allows one to conquer or to resist.  Many critics have remarked on the pleasant surprise of the prominence of Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow character in the film.  But given the prominence of psychological ops to the plot, it would be surprising if she wasn't a central character.  As a manifestation of the manipulative femme fatale superspy archetype, she is the type of superhero who wins wars.  Twice in the movie it appeared that she was at a disadvantage, once seemingly at a psychological disadvantage, only to find that she was the puppet master.

Of course, another character who attempted psychological warfare in the film was the central antagonist.  Loki's voluntary capture was all-too-reminiscent of the Joker's tactic in The Dark Knight.  He proved himself to be most dangerous when at close proximity to those whom he might manipulate.  And speaking of archetypes, the character of the Hulk is rife with application to this discussion.  A brilliant rational scientist is constantly battling his passionate and unthinking id.  Is it at all surprising that the god of mischief's chief strategy for destroying the Avengers from within would be the uncorking of Banner's id?

But Banner/Hulk was not alone in fighting his emotions.  With the possible exception of Black Widow, all of the Avengers stories involved a battle against their own emotions.  The first we saw Captain America, he was working out his aggression on a series of punching bags.  Iron Man had to overcome his sense of wounded pride at initially being left out of the Avengers (and showed his susceptibility to psychological manipulation himself when Pepper Potts convinced him to "play nice with others").  Hawkeye battled guilt and self-loathing after having his will violated by Loki.  And Thor had to overcome the complicated ambivalence he felt about fighting his brother (which Loki would later exploit in hand-to-hand combat, accusing Thor of the weakness of "sentiment").

But that's not to say that sentiment actually is a weakness in this film.  The turning point came after the Avengers rallied around the death of Agent Coulson.  In the end, Banner channeled his anger in order to unleash the Hulk as a force for good.  The Black Widow did show a flicker of emotion at one point when discussing her need for vengeance on Loki, and both she and Hawkeye channeled their personal grudge in order to help the Avengers triumph.  Iron Man channeled his love for Pepper as he pursued the nuclear missile.  It was the Hulk's roar of grief at Iron Man's apparent demise that caused Stark's revival.

Nor was Loki devoid of emotion.  For as much as he sneered at Thor's sentimentality, and for as much as he used psychology as a weapon, his own psychology proved his undoing.  In the tradition of the mythology from which his character is derived, his hubris and revenge drive sowed the seeds of his defeat.  And his final fate was sealed when his wounded pride overrode his rationality.  Even though he showed himself capable of brilliance, thinking he could stand up to the Hulk was a matter of pure stupidity.  Having lost the psychological advantage, he found himself contending on a purely physical plane with a brute force, leading to one of the most comically (no pun intended) satisfying moments in the entire film.

Beyond this mythical and fantastic cinematic world, I think the subtext of this film holds up as a commentary on modern conflict.  A coldly rational approach won't work.  Nor will an entirely emotionally-driven approach.  But those individuals or nations who can master and control their own feelings while understanding the psychology that drives their opponents stand to gain an advantage beyond what the most powerful weapons might offer.